Mental Health | Weight Management
February 26, 2018

Infographic: Shattering myths about eating disorders


02_23 Eating disorders

Be aware of statistics, risk factors, warning signs and myths about eating disorders.


Eating disorder prevalence among young adults is scary, especially because when left untreated, eating disorders can have dire health consequences like damage to the heart and brain.

Unfortunately, less than 13 percent of young people with eating disorders actually receive treatment, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

With the help of a specialist at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, we’ve exposed some of the myths surrounding adolescent eating disorders:


1. Myth: Eating disorders only affect females.

“Eating disorders affect both males and females, all races and ethnicities and individuals from all walks of life,” said S. Todd Callahan, M.D., a specialist of adolescent and young adult health.

“In clinical practice, about one out of every ten patients we evaluate with eating disorders is male; this is similar to estimates reported nationally,” Callahan added.

He says that in early adolescence, the proportion of boys presenting with eating disorders is similar to that of girls.

2. Myth: Eating disorders are all about losing weight, and people who are a normal weight cannot have an eating disorder.

Someone with an eating disorder may actually look healthy.

“Serious eating disorders can occur even in the absence of weight loss and may even be accompanied by weight gain,” Callahan says. “Many youth with eating disorders do not want to lose weight.”

The behaviors that characterize eating disorders — over-exercising, binge eating or purging — are actually symptoms, Callahan says.

“Often these behaviors occur because they lead to short-term reductions in anxiety and depression,” he adds. “However, over time these behaviors contribute to brain and body changes that worsen or lead to anxiety and depression.”

3. Myth: Eating disorders are a choice.

“Having an eating disorder is not a choice,” Callahan said. “Eating disorders are serious biologically based diseases.”

Genetics is the biggest factor determining whether someone will develop an eating disorder. “Having these genes does not mean that an individual will definitely develop an eating disorder,” Callahan said. “However, it means that they are at higher risk.”

In susceptible individuals, other factors like dieting, growth and development, stress and social circumstances may trigger the development of an eating disorder, he said.

4. Myth: Once a person reaches a normal weight again, he or she is cured.

“For youth who have lost weight, improvement in eating and weight recovery is a first, early step in treatment,” Callahan explained.

However, developing healthy eating behaviors takes time. “Many youth continue to avoid certain foods for months to years,” Callahan said. “The body may appear healthy on the outside, but it can take years for the recovery from the bone, muscle and brain changes that occur with eating disorders.”

In addition to improving physical health, eating disorder treatment should involve addressing the psychological symptoms of depression, anxiety, obsessions and compulsions. This part of treatment may take months or even years, Callahan said.

5. Myth: A person with an eating disorder has to want to get better before treatment will help.

“While the mindset of an individual can powerfully influence recovery, eating disorders affect the way the brain functions,” Callahan said. “Often youth cannot ‘want to get better’ until their brain and body has been rescued from the effects of starvation.”

The first step in treatment is to restore adequate nutrition so that the brain and the body can begin to function more normally, he added.

Weight Management, Infographics, Depression

This week is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. Explore Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt’s Eating Disorders Program, including services, facts and warning signs for eating disorders.

2 thoughts on “Infographic: Shattering myths about eating disorders”

  1. Bridgett Kurtz says:

    Hello. I’m 58 years old, and have survived a life of eating disorder.
    My poor mother was mortified when doctors declared me malnourished and hinted she was not taking proper care of me, but the more she insisted I eat, the more defiant I became – the power struggle began very early in my life. My mother was certain that I refused to eat out of spite and stubborness. I was an embarrassment.
    My difficulty with eating was, I believe, born of an aversion to certain (most) textures. Later, as a special ed teacher, I learned that many children with various disabilities shared that issue. I have struggled with OCD (runs in the family) and depression. I feel anxious when I’m around people who talk a lot about food. I’m very uncomfortable if anyone comments on my weight or eating habits.
    I’m very glad that a light is being shed on this. No one seemed to know this when I was young, so I never received any treatment that might have helped. I am pretty sure I was in a very fragile and dangerous condition when I was 12 – 14, and I’m grateful I survived.

    1. Maura Ammenheuser says:

      I’m so sorry you have had these challenges. Thank you for sharing your experience and your insight about aversion to certain food textures. We agree that there is greater understanding now of the nuances of eating disorders. We hope people are able to get the help they need.

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